When Real Madrid signed Luka Modric for €30m in the summer of 2012, it wasn't exactly clear what his role would be at the Spanish giants. Theoretically, he would play as one of the two deeper midfielders, but those positions had been locked in by Jose Mourinho's preferred combination of Sami Khedira and Xabi Alonso, the latter's intelligent distribution contrasting neatly with the energy and physicality provided by the German.
Aside from a very unlikely re-deployment on the wing, the only other position that Modric could possibly have claimed was in the hole, replacing Mesut Ozil. But this seemed unlikely considering how the playmaker had flourished in his first full season in Spain, and Ozil's clever relationship with Cristiano Ronaldo was another key factor.
Instead, Modric was signed, broadly speaking, as a ‘supersub'. That's a very harsh, belittling definition to give to an immensely talented player, but there was no other explanation for Madrid's desperate pursuit of his services. They needed him to backup Alonso, whose body had been pushed to the limit the previous season, or to partner the Spaniard in games where Madrid needed more guile in deep midfield. Modric could also theoretically play as a part of a midfield three, giving Madrid greater ball retention in the centre, and Ozil drifting in from the flank.
But increasingly, it has become clear that Modric deserves a greater role. Mourinho has preferred to use him off the bench, a useful option in games, keeping the faith in Xabi Alonso to dictate the tempo of matches. Alonso's a fine player with outstanding technique, and his infamously accurate long balls have engineered a reputation for him that is probably unjustified. Granted, those eye-of-the-needle passes are extremely useful for Madrid's turbo-charged counter-attacking game, but increasingly, it's becoming clear that when his ability to play those balls is limited he serves little purpose.
Danny Welbeck and Mario Gotze are two very different players but both were trusted with the same instructions: when their side was out of possession, they had to drop onto Alonso and prevent him from receiving the ball. In Madrid's two biggest games this season, Alonso was anonymous.
In the second leg of the semi-final tie against Borussia Dortmund, Jose Mourinho recognized the issue and started Modric in the double pivot alongside Alonso, relegating Khedira to the bench. The theory was that Dortmund wouldn't be able to deal with the threat of two ‘creative' players in that zone, so one of Alonso and Modric was always free to carry the ball forward.
The plan made sense in theory and in practice. Modric was the more proactive, always looking to spray passes towards Madrid's attacking band as well as being willing enough to maneuver around the challenges that came his way.
This is where things get interesting. By contrast, Alonso had a much quieter game, neither helping with his short distribution nor being able to play any of his long diagonals. The circumstances were slightly bent for this game -- Madrid are not required to score three unanswered goals in every match -- but the contrasting performances of Modric and Alonso illustrated that the former should have a greater role.
Modric is more mobile, able to skip past challenges and dance around physical defenders. With Alonso, it has become obvious that by man-marking him, or closing off the passing angles towards him, you significantly limit his influence on the game. Granted, his long passing is the one attribute in which he is in the ascendancy over Modric, but Alonso needs to have the space given to him so he can execute these passes. Modric, on the other hand, can manufacture his own space, and so brings a greater variety to the ‘passer' role in Madrid's formation.
A Modric-Alonso partnership isn't sustainable in the long term - neither are defensively minded enough to provide the protection that the back four requires. When Alonso is forced to play defensively, he becomes a scrapper, the weak link of the side, and is often yellow carded. Again, Modric's versatility makes him the better option - albeit less physical, but quicker and nimbler, and better able to cope with the changing tempo of a game. His defensive contributions for Croatia at Euro 2012 underpin his defensive acumen - against Italy, he did an excellent job in man-marking Andrea Pirlo, while against Spain he restricted the freedom of Sergio Busquets by dropping goalside of the Barcelona man, before helping his side transition defence into attack with some clever passes.
Things are changing in the Spanish capital - Mourinho is surely on the way out and there will be players coming and going. Given the talent at his disposal, the new manager will presumably have to choose between either Alonso or Modric. For the sake of tactical variety and flexibility, the Croatian must be the future.